Monthly Archives: September 2012

Author Spotlight: Michael Chabon

Simply put, Michael Chabon is a writer’s writer. When I read his work, there are passages on every page that make me want to stand up and applaud. His gifts are prodigious. Reading popular fiction is like enjoying a snack compared to Michael Chabon’s novels, which are full seven-course meals that leave the reader fully sated.

Born in Washington D.C. in 1963, Chabon burst onto the literary scene with his 1988 “coming of age” novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. It was much more than a coming of age novel. It explored the relationship between a distant, but powerful father and his confused post-college son, in which the father provided everything but love and understanding. It delved into sexual identity and the main character’s confusion about his sexual orientation. The main character skirted the line between the post-graduate world and the murky terrain of low-life criminals. And the prose was typical Chabon—brilliant and compelling.

There followed a five-year period in which Chabon worked on a novel that was never published. Fountain City was planned as the follow-up to his debut novel. It was the story of an architect who dreamed of building the perfect baseball park in Miami. Working under deadline pressure, Chabon eventually abandoned the project, then turned around and finished his second novel, Wonder Boys, in an astonishing seven months.

Wonder Boys, published in 1995, focuses on college professor and doomed author Grady Tripp (played by Michael Douglas in the movie). Tripp is laboring over a weighty manuscript that he cannot seem to get into shape for publication. Meanwhile he is having an affair with the wife of a senior official at the college where he works. And he is mentoring a troubled young student.

Chabon’s third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavaler & Clay, saw the author at the peak of his powers. Published in 2000, the novel won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for literature. The story builds on Chabon’s fascination with comic books as it follows two cousins who meet during the throes of the Depression in the late 1930s, but lose touch during World War II. Comic books provide a backdrop for a dark story in which each man struggles to find his soul in a world that is at once welcoming and hostile.

He next published The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in 2007. This is a fine novel that works both as a hardboiled detective story and as a commentary on geopolitics in the Mideast. Set in a fictional Jewish post-war settlement in Alaska, the novel centers on a down-and-out detective who must solve a complex murder.

Chabon’s literary influences include many noted writers of the 20th Century, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Raymond Chandler, John Updike, Philip Roth, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

His new novel, Telegraph Avenue, can take its place among his best work. Writing in the New York Times, Jennifer Egan (herself a Pulitzer Prize winner), said of Telegraph Avenue, “The novel is equally a tribute to the cinematic style of Quentin Tarrantino, whose films its characters study and discuss, and whose preoccupations pepper its pages: Kung Fu, cinematic allusions and the blaxploitation films of the 1970s; and an interest in the African-American characters and experience.”

It centers on two business partners and dreamers, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, who operate a used record store called Brokeland Records, in a section of Oakland that borders Berkeley, a hodgepodge of cultures and ethnicities and political beliefs. The store is threatened by a megamall development (including a used record store) proposed by a former NFL star named Gibson “G Bad” Goode, sort of a cross between Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Meanwhile Archy faces major problems on the home front as his teen-age son whom he hasn’t acknowledged returns from Texas to the surprise of his wife, seven months pregnant. Gwen Shanks has problems of her own as the midwife practice she shares with Nat’s wife, Aviva Roth-Jaffe, faces a lawsuit and possible revocation of hospital privileges from a birth gone wrong. As if that’s not enough, Archy’s wayward dad, blaxploitation film star Luther Stallings, is back in town after a stint in prison and is looking to shake down a prominent Oakland City Councilman who is the key to the development deal.

In one passage, the reader sees Archy at his lowest: “Archy was tired of Nat, and he was tired of Gwen and her pregnancy, with all the unsuspected depths of his insufficiency that it threatened to reveal. He was tired of Brokeland, and of black people, and of white people, and of all their schemes and grudges, their frontings, hustles, and corruptions. Most of all, he was tired of being a holdout, a sole survivor, the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late-modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat.”

Telegraph Avenue  is pure Chabon—robust, scintillating and thoroughly satisfying—but I will review it soon on this blog.

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The Ladder to Perfection

In my most recent post, I discussed the revision process and why it is hard, but necessary. This got me thinking about my approach in reviewing first drafts, and how each round of reviews builds on what’s already been done.

First drafts are messy. The writing is clumsy. The characters’ motivations may not have been fully developed. There are gaps or inconsistencies in the plot.

When I come back to a first draft I’ve written, I invariably find I’ve done too much telling and not enough showing. It’s the cardinal sin of writing. Let’s say there is a scene where a star athlete meets a young woman in the bar. He’s interested; she’s not. There’s some give-and-take dialogue. Next thing you know, there’s one of those transition paragraphs: He somehow managed to get her phone number and within a couple of weeks, they were sleeping together. I would never write it that way. Why? The reader feels cheated. How exactly did this star athlete turn around this woman’s attitude? We don’t know. We only know what the author “told” us.

The first part of that scene is based on a scene I’m currently working on. I wrote the dialogue for the encounter between the athlete and the young woman. It was fairly pedestrian stuff. Now I need to go back and add texture and a layer of tension. She doesn’t like him at first. There’s some verbal jousting. Perhaps there’s a well-timed interruption by his friend. What is driving him? What about her? What motivation might she have to want to go out with this guy, who she doesn’t really like when they first meet? So my challenge is to start with the dialogue. Sharpen it. Challenge the characters to go deeper than the typical bar scene encounter. Focus on what’s going on in their heads and how that translates into authentic dialogue. How can the setting enhance the scene? Maybe it is loud in the bar and he leans in close to her, creating an unexpected intimacy which she likes.

When I think about the rounds of revisions, I envision a ladder:

  • First rung. The writer gets the basic gist of the scene on paper, but there’s too much telling.
  • Second rung. The writer focuses on showing, through dialogue, pacing, setting, narrative. The more description the better.
  • Third rung. The writer delves deeper into the character’s motivations—which hold the key to any scene in a novel.
  • Fourth rung. The scene is really coming together. The writer can focus on things like foreshadowing. Should he add a siren in the distance? A sudden fight that breaks out?
  • Reaching the top rung: The view from up here is awesome. All of the elements of the scene are working together to create a cohesive whole.

It could take several rewrites to get to that top rung. The important thing is the writer cannot be satisfied with one or two rounds of revisions. The writer must continually ask: how can I make this scene better? Keep challenging yourself. Climb that ladder to the top.

How many revisions do you need to reach the top rung?

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Word Counts for Revisions?

Writers know all about word counts. It’s drilled into us—1,000 words a day. Write for three hours, four hours. Achieve that daily word count. Writers get that. The only way to finish the first draft of a novel is to place the old “butt in chair” and write. The daily habit. Do what it takes to churn out a draft of 80,000 to 100,000 words in less than six months.

Simple enough, right? Okay, but what happens when the writer gets to the revision process? What’s the word count when revising a first draft? What is a writer’s daily production goal? What’s the benchmark? If a writer’s goal in producing a first draft is 1,000 words per day, shouldn’t our goal in revising a first draft be to review at least triple or quadruple that number? After all, we’ve already put all those words on the page. This may seem logical, but the hard part has only begun.

I’ve spent the last two weeks revising the first chapter of my work-in-progress. Heck, I’ve spend the last week on the first page of my draft. I’ve completely rewritten the opening scene twice now and it’s still not where I want it to be. There’s a valuable lesson here. When it comes to the revision process, there are no word counts. There are no benchmarks. The key is this: do whatever it takes. The opening line, page, and chapter must sing, or, better yet, must belt it out like an opera singer.

Once a writer gets the opening chapter right, the rest falls into place. It makes revising the entire work a whole lot easier. Well, not always. Sometimes the rest of the draft is just as much work.

So this begs the question: if there are no word counts for the revision process, how does the writer ensure the whole project doesn’t fall way off track? There may be no word counts, but discipline still counts. Revising is not fun—certainly not as much fun as writing. Ever spend an hour struggling to come up with just the right word or the right sentence? Your brain generates cliché after cliché. You know what you need to say. You just can’t conjure up the right word to say it.

It’s different when writing a first draft. If the wording isn’t perfect, move onto the next scene. You can fix it later. The revision process is when the later comes due. A writer can’t merely move on, unless he wants to go back and revise again and again. No, the writer has to get it right, word by word, page by page.

This is one of those posts where I can’t summon up a simple bullet point list, but I’ll give it a try:

  • Revisions are hard.
  • Revisions require supreme patience.
  • There is no word count.
  • It’s not fun, but
  • A writer must do it every day, just like writing.

And that is the hardest part: returning to the work-in-progress each day, knowing it’s far from perfect. The satisfaction of molding that imperfect first draft into a work of art must drive the writer forward. That is the only benchmark.

Do you set goals for the revision process? What sort of metrics do you use, if any?

 

 

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Book Review: “The Beginner’s Goodbye,” by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler’s 19th novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, is about holding on and letting go. Aaron Woolcott and his wife, Dorothy, have a typical marriage, with ups and downs, love and pain, and unspoken grudges. One day, after a minor spat, a tree topples over on the sun room of their home, killing Dorothy.

Set in Baltimore, where many of her novels take place, the story centers on the months following Dorothy’s death. After 11 years of marriage, Aaron cannot let go. He doggedly goes about his business, rejecting the sympathies and kindness extended by friends, until one day Dorothy’s ghost appears. In the hands of a lesser writer, this device might seem like a cheap ploy. Tyler uses the ghost of Dorothy to delve into the unresolved issues that haunt Aaron. Through his unexpected meetings with Dorothy, Aaron probes the small hurts that festered during their marriage as he yearns for resolution.

Aaron is a sympathetic main character. He is an unremarkable every-man, who has a crippled arm and leg and speaks with an occasional stutter. He was initially attracted to Dorothy, a doctor, because she took no notice of his handicap.

Although this is one of Tyler’s shortest books, at roughly 200 pages, it has a lot to say about love, marriage, and the fragility of intimate relationships. When his marriage is cut short, Aaron struggles to find normalcy in his life. He drags his feet on repairing his home until his take-charge sister, Nandina (a sharply drawn character) nudges him into action. His friends try to cheer him up. There is one hilarious scene where two of his male friends invite him to a restaurant for dinner and spend the entire evening not talking about their wives because they don’t want to bring up the memory of Aaron’s loss.

Tyler finds the most interesting occupations for her main characters. In this case, Aaron works in the family business, a boutique publishing company in which the authors pay to have their work published. This is perhaps a wry observation and commentary by Tyler of the current state of the publishing industry. The publishing house’s speciality are “how to” books called “The Beginners” series, which explains the title of the novel. In one scene, Aaron struggles as he slogs through a deadly memoir of an old man’s experiences in World War II in which the writer described every boring detail of his life as a soldier, and none of the terror of war.

This story ultimately is about love, loss, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Like all of Tyler’s work, The Beginner’s Goodbye is a masterfully prepared and satisfying entre, spiced with quirky, loveable characters.

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Why Twitter is Your Best Friend

One of the key lessons I learned during my first year as a blogger was that Twitter was my best friend. It wasn’t always that way. I resisted Twitter for a long time. I fell for the common perception that Twitter was all about telling the world what you ate for lunch, what you did five minutes ago, and what you were planning to do later in the day. There may be some truth to that, but Twitter offers so much more to those who understand and capitalize on its value.

Twitter is all about sharing and learning and learning and sharing. That’s the culture of Twitter. For writers, the real value lies in who you choose to follow. When you follow people like Porter Anderson, Mike Shatzkin, and Jane Friedman, you look through a window into the publishing world. If you approach Twitter in the right frame of mind (share and play nice), you will also discover people will follow you. Some might be looking to do business with you, but I’ve gained followers who simply stopped by my blog and liked what they read.

So how can writers get the most out of Twitter?

  • Share, share, share. Did I say that enough? And don’t just share your own content. Share links to other useful articles.
  • Follow thought leaders in your industry or profession. It is amazing what you will learn.
  • Retweet. If somebody sends a link to a useful article, retweet it. They will appreciate it.
  • Follow people for fun. I follow people as diverse as Robinson Cano, Spike Lee, and Thom Yorke.
  • Set up your blog so it automatically feeds into Twitter and Facebook.
  • Follow your favorite writer blogs and you will receive them on Twitter each day.

I use other social media tools, but I always find myself coming back to Twitter. There’s no end to the interesting things I learn each day on Twitter.

What do you think of Twitter? What’s your favorite social media tool?

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7 Lessons from a First-Year Blogger

This month marked my first anniversary as a blogger. While my stats are hardly impressive, I have 111 posts and more than 5,000 views to my credit. In the process, I’ve learned a lot and would like to share seven key lessons:

1. Keep doing it. The blogosphere is littered with bloggers who started out fast and flamed out. If you are going to start a blog, you must make a long-term commitment. Take the long view. Are you really passionate enough about the subject to keep going back to it again and again. Do you have enough to say? Do you have enough time? Which brings me to my second lesson.

2. Your writing comes first. I have not found the right balance yet. I admit I have sacrificed my writing time in the interest of keeping up my blog and that’s a bad habit. I need to work on that.

3. Read other blogs. Bloggers must stay current on what is being written about their subject. What are the hot stories? What are the trends or books people are talking about? Writing books doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Writers are part of a vast world that includes traditional and self-publishing. Besides, reading other blogs will give you topic ideas.

4. Build your online community. My philosophy is to focus on making a few meaningful connections. This is best done by faithfully reading blogs you like and leaving comments. It also involves being nice to other bloggers, reading and reviewing their work and sharing tips and insights. It takes time, but it’s worth it.

5. Twitter is your best friend. I resisted Twitter for a long time, but a friend persisted in touting its benefits. Once I realized what it was all about and what it could do for a writer, I was hooked. Again, Twitter is about sharing and giving, not about self-promotion. If you follow the right people, you can get all your news about your subject of interest through Twitter.

6. Branch out. My blog started as a resource for new writers. All of my posts were focused on helping the novice writer. I wrote with an eye toward giving advice I would have found most helpful when I was starting out. I always knew it would morph into something more. I have added Author Spotlights on authors I admire and Book Reviews. I realize I am not only a writer, but an avid reading and reading is just as important to me as writing.

7. You own it. Fiction writing bloggers tend to write about the same topics, but what I find fascinating is that every writer’s perspective on these topics is so different. We all see writing through our unique prism. And that’s what the individual blogger brings to the table. Share your insights. Share your journey. Give knowledge to others. You will find it most rewarding. Now I need to go and spend some time on my Work In Progress.

What lessons have you learned as a blogger? Have you figured out the balance between blogging and writing fiction?

 

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Author Spotlight: Alice Munro

Alice Munro occupies a special place in my pantheon of modern authors. She is part of my Holy Trinity, along with Anne Tyler and Alice McDermott. Long recognized as one of the pre-eminent short story writers of our time, Munro received the 2009 Man Booker International Prize in recognition of her lifetime body of work. She is often called the “Canadian Chekhov.”

Ironically, Munro didn’t set out to write short stories. “I never intended to be a short-story writer,” Munro said in a November 1986 interview with The New York Times. ”I started writing them because I didn’t have time to write anything else – I had three children. And then I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way, and now I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel.”

She found short stories more satisfying than novels. ”I don’t really understand a novel,” she said in the same interview. ”I don’t understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel, and I do in a story. There’s a kind of tension that if I’m getting a story right I can feel right away, and I don’t feel that when I try to write a novel. I kind of want a moment that’s explosive, and I want everything gathered into that.”

Munro sets many of her stories in her native southwestern Ontario Province. The small towns of rural Huron County provide the backdrop for her complex female characters, many of whom feel the urge to break away from their roots, a theme explored to great effect in her 2004 collection, Runaway.

As is the case with Anne Tyler’s work, Munro writes quiet stories that plumb the interior depths of complicated relationships. Some critics say little of consequence happens in her stories, but that is her strength. Munro doesn’t need body counts or car wrecks to keep the reader riveted to her stories.

“Munro’s writing creates…an empathetic union among readers, critics most apparent among them. We are drawn to her writing by its verisimilitude—not of mimesis, so-called and…’realism’—but rather the feeling of being itself…of just being a human being,” Robert Thacker wrote of Munro’s work

In an interview on the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group website, Munro spoke about her approach to writing and why she was attracted to short stories. “I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way—what happens to somebody—but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something that is astonishing—not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.”

She also discussed her relationship with her characters. “I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth—what clothes they’d choose, what they were like at school, etc…And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I’m dealing with. I can’t see them just now, packed into the stress of the moment. So I suppose I want to give as much of them as I can.”

Munro also made the astute observation that memory is a key element of story-telling. “Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories—and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories. We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of. What would be more interesting as a life’s occupation? One of the ways we do this, I think, is by trying to look at what memory does (different tricks at different stages of our lives) and at the way people’s different memories deal with the same (shared) experience. The more disconcerting the differences are, the more the writer in me feels an odd exhilaration.”

At the age of 81, Munro is still going strong. Her publisher announced recently she will publish her 13th book of short stories in November, Dear Life. I can’t wait.

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